Chinese citizens yearn to own vehicles; bad traffic, poor driving ensue

By Justin McDuffie


Crossing the street seems like such a simple task, but in the middle of Shanghai, it can be deadly. While traveling in China, several of Arizona State University’s journalism students were nearly mauled down by speeding bus with no regard for the traffic signal above.

“I can’t believe how close I was to getting hit by a bus in Shanghai,” senior student Andrea Crandell said. “As a group of us began crossing the street, a bus suddenly came out of nowhere and was just a few feet from where we were walking.

It was moving so fast, and we barely had time to get out of the way. The bus didn’t even slow down … The driver just began honking the horn and picking up speed. I quickly learned that pedestrians do not have the right of way in China.”

Visitors to cities of China grow accustomed to honking, poor driving and constant traffic. The car culture in China is growing rapidly in a place that 30 years ago was known to the world as a bicycle country.

Vehicles pack the main roads during the day in major Chinese cities, such as Beijing (pictured above). As Chinese citizens desire vehicles, traffic jams are rapidly turning Beijing’s streets into parking lots. Photo by AP/Alexander F. Yuan

Owning a car or two is part of every day life for an American, but in China this is something new, and something most Chinese are striving to be able to buy. One of the dreams of many Chinese citizens is to own at least one car, if not two.

In 1994, the Chinese government began to encourage private car ownership for citizens.

Zhao Hong, director of the economic institute of the Beijing Academy of Social Science, told China Daily that “rising incomes, plummeting car prices and urban expansion have made it possible and at times necessary for a large number of Beijingers to purchase a vehicle.”

In many cases, buying the car is not an issue, since most customers pay cash for their vehicles, but the taxes and fees can cost more than the car itself.

“I really like Land Rovers, and would really like to be able to purchase one in the future,” Christy Wang, a Shanghai International Studies University student said.

Buying a car in China is not really a necessity, since it isn’t very convenient – it is much more about status: showing people that you are able to afford a car, particularly a luxury car.

In a New York Times article, Yu Qiang talked about his first car purchase, and how it has improved the quality of life for him and his family.

“A new subway line will be completed to my neighborhood later this year, and I’m hoping many other people will ride it so that the traffic will get better,” Yu said. “I’ll keep driving my car, though. It’s more comfortable because I can listen to music, use the air-conditioner, and it’s not crowded.”

An article in the New York Times said:

“Yu then made a comment that sounded like a city planner’s nightmare and a car salesman’s dream. ‘In China everybody wants to have a car, and I’m just one of them,’ he said. ‘We think of it as changing our lives.’ As for the traffic implications, he added, smiling, ‘the government has a lot to do to improve the traffic, and I believe they will do it.’”

The Chinese market is booming for luxury European and American models, including BMW, Porsche, Buick and Cadillac.

Traffic in Shanghai is only increasing as more young Chinese citizens desire to own a vehicle. Photo by Sarah Pringle

For many Chinese people, this is the first time they have ever owned a car. Many young people are buying cars, while their parents never had one. The car culture is leading to poor driving skills, since they have no one to learn from like young people do in United States.

“In Beijing, the number of cars that families own, the growth rate of car ownership and the intensity of the usage of cars are all higher than those of foreign cities such as New York and Tokyo,” Guo Jifu, head of the Beijing Transportation Research Center, said in an Associated Press article. “When the traffic load reaches a certain level, a light disruption like an accident could destabilize the system and amplify the disruptive effect.”

Before the Olympic games, the city of Beijing allowed cars into the city by odd and even plate numbers on alternating days.

Now the city of Beijing issues 20,000 new license plates each month. Wishful citizens hold a 1-in-32 chance of receiving a plate in the lottery, to drive in the city six days a week. The last number on the plate is what allows people to drive in the city. If an individual is found driving on an unauthorized day, he or she can be fined or even placed in jail.

In Shanghai, now it costs just as much to buy a license plate to drive the car, as it is to purchase a car. In the most recent auction for license plates in Shanghai the average bid for one of the 9,300 up for grabs was over $10,000 by the 24,230 people that applied to bid. This was a record for highest bids and the number of plates up for auction.  It is extremely difficult to get a plate in Shanghai, with only 38.3 percent of individuals winning with a bid, according to a Xinhuanet news article.

As more people find success within China, they try and get around the ban by owning two cars, with different plate numbers. According to a government official in an Associated Press article, “about one-fifth of new sales are for a second car.”

Motor vehicles are going to be essential to the future of the country. With more people purchasing them, it means poorer driving, poor air quality, and even worse traffic.

Better education for individuals wishing to obtain a license to drive a car would, along with educating people who already drive, would help control the way people drive and traffic would move smoother.

As China becomes a bigger car producer, their main goal should be to make the most environmentally friendly cars possible. Their air quality in China is already some of the worst in the world, and will only get worse with more cars.

Traffic is already horrible in Beijing and Shanghai, and other Chinese cities. If China wishes to continue its urban growth, they need to start preparing the roadwork in and around the cities.

If China wants to become a major game player, with wealth and power, they must embrace the younger generations love for the car. As many of them find success, they deserve the right to purchase a car, but in a well-monitored way.

Graphic from LMC Automotive
Home Traffic
© The Chinese Dream
Website created by Kirsten Adams & Melanie Yamaguchi